A way to keep our cities clean

LOCAL authorities are responsible for the proper functioning of towns and cities, including the management and upkeep of public areas, such as roads and parks, and overall cleanliness.

Every house owner has to pay assessment tax, known as "cukai pintu" in Bahasa Malaysia, to the local authorities. This is to enable the local councils to have enough funds to set up departments to provide a range of public services.

More specifically, local authorities are responsible for collecting household waste and transporting it to disposal sites. The councils also have sweepers to keep roads, parks and playgrounds clean.

Malaysian towns and cities can be considered as not clean. But it would not be fair to put all the blame on the workers responsible for keeping the towns and cities clean.

Penangites, including visitors, often do not abide by the laws strictly. There have been cases of indiscriminate disposal of solid waste. Many even discard their waste material into drains. In some places, the clogged drains are so smelly that it is a torture to walk along the nearby pavements.

The foul smell is bad enough. Drains that are choked with solid waste are not able to efficiently carry the runoff of water to the rivers and the sea, hence causing flash floods in low-lying areas.

Besides the health impact of the floods, the waste can also result in contaminants ending up in the sea, polluting the water and affecting marine life.

There is no doubt that our towns and cities can be cleaner. Singapore was as dirty as the towns and cities in the peninsula during the time of Malaya. When it became an independent country, its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, was able to turn the island state into one of the cleanest cities in Asia and the world, with public education programmes, stricter laws and heavy fines.

The mayors and presidents of local councils in Malaysia should ensure that the towns and cities are cleaner by using two basic strategies: Coordinating programmes on education and awareness against littering, and taking strict action against the culprits and persistent offenders.

One way is to provide cash incentives to informants who report on illegal dumping of waste. This has proven to work well with the Kajang Municipal Council that started the programme in 2015, as there is a reduction in the number of illegal dumping spots.

Of course, this is not the ideal way as councils have to depend on others to be watch-dogs to curb littering. Ideally, compliance comes from doing what is right for the good of society rather than from fear of being caught and being fined. We need to have our own sense of responsibility to cultivate good neighbourliness and ensure a nice and comfortable surrounding for every resident.

People usually do not discard rubbish in their own houses and compounds. However, there are many who simply leave their garbage or unwanted items in open public spaces. It is also common to see animal pet droppings on pedestrian pavements and public gardens. Construction waste left by the road sides is another eye-sore. We should ask ourselves why some people do not see these public areas as belonging equally to all.

It is still not too late to teach adults about the importance of keeping the environment clean. These are simply civic values that enable us to treat one another with respect. We could take cue from other countries that have conducted successful public education programmes, backed up with moderate punitive measures. Make sure that people know the right actions to take when discarding waste, and face the consequences when they break the law.

Since it is easier to teach and instil civic values when people are young, school children have to be taught to keep their schools clean.

Besides having to learn languages, history, geography, mathematics and sciences, school children should be taught more civic lessons to understand the importance of cleanliness and respect for fellow citizens. They should also be taught about some of the basic functions of their neighbourhoods and cities, including the impacts of indiscriminate littering, and the value of recycling, reusing and reducing for a sustainable environment.

Children are our future. If they can routinely keep their schools clean, there is no doubt that they will also keep their towns or cities clean.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: